By Hannah L. Torregoza
Former Health secretary Enrique Ona on Monday blamed his successor, ex-Department of Health (DOH) secretary Janette Garin, for the major health nightmare caused by the Aquino government’s botched anti-dengue vaccine program.
At the continuation of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee’s investigation into the government’s controversial procurement of P3.5-billion Dengvaxia vaccine from French pharmaceutical Sanofi Pasteur, Ona said the leadership that took over the DOH after he left on December 20, 2014 “is solely responsible for all the decisions” concerning the anti-dengue vaccines.
Ona, likewise, denied former President Benigno Aquino III’s statement that he was part of the meeting with executives of Sanofi in Beijing, China in December, 2014.
It was Garin, then undersecretary, who took over the DOH chief post shortly after Ona left the Aquino Cabinet that year.
Around 830,000 public school students had been vaccinated with Dengvaxia under Garin’s watch. It was also during her stint when the mass anti-dengue immunization program was implemented and was later on continued by former DOH secretary Paulyn Jean Rosell Ubial.
According to the DOH, the mass vaccination was launched in Central Luzon, Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon), Metro Manila, and Cebu.
Ona said that during his four-and-a-half year term in the DOH, Sanofi officials requested annual briefings on the status of the clinical study for the anti-dengue vaccine being tested in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and several other countries in South America.
“I had high hopes like many others that the vaccine being developed would eventually control this mosquito-borne disease that affects more than a hundred thousand Filipinos or patients annually and scares so many of our foreign visitors and tourists,” Ona told committee chair Sen. Richard Gordon.
“In light of this Sanofi Pasteur’s advisory on the use of anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia, the leadership that took over the DOH after I left on December 20, 2014 is solely responsible for all the decisions that have resulted in what was becoming to be a major health nightmare in the country,” Ona further said.
Had he been the DOH secretary, Ona said he would not have recommended to then President Aquino to implement the anti-dengue program, which targeted at least 1 million children, “in that extent.”
“Dapat po this should have not been implemented the way it was done. Meaning, targeting almost a million children because the basis for the issues that were being raised was still a big question mark,” he said.
“I would have not agreed in that extent. I would not have gone into that,” Ona stressed.
Garin, who was also present during the hearing, attempted to butt in and refute Ona’s statement, but Gordon interrupted her and proceeded to question Ona.
When Gordon asked Ona if it was true he was with Aquino’s meeting with Sanofi executives on November 2014, Ona denied that he was.
Ona said Aquino’s statement that he was part of the meeting “was a complete surprise to me because I was in Beijing in August.”
“I looked over my passport because of this insinuation that I was with the President in Beijing (in November). Wala po. I was not (there),” Ona pointed out.
“If that was the given date, you are right, I was not there. I was not in Beijing that month. It was only in August of 2014 that I was in Beijing and it was not with the President,” he told the panel.
Asked by Gordon if he recalled meeting with officials of Sanofi while in Beijing at that time, Ona said: “No, I don’t recall.”
Ona said his trip to China in August was in preparation for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting that was held in November later that year.
Gordon noted that Ona resigned from the DOH on December 19, or two weeks before the meeting was about to take place. He, however, disclosed that he was asked to take a leave for three weeks before he resigned.
Asked if he had a grudge with then President Aquino, Ona admitted yes. But when Gordon asked if this was because Garin had “direct access” to Aquino’s office when she was still an undersecretary, Ona said: “Hindi naman ho.”
Ona said his work as DOH secretary entailed going around the country and that is why there is a liaison officer.
“You might call me naïve, but I was not suspicious,” Ona said.
When it was her turn to speak, Garin immediately refuted allegations she had direct access to President Aquino.
According to Garin, it was Ona himself who brought her to the President.
“He said I was the liaison of the DOH to Malacañang. That’s not true. He assigned me to be in charge of the DLLO – Department Legislative Liaison Office – that’s policy matters and legislation. That’s Congress (House of Representatives) and Senate po, hindipo Congress and Malacañang,” Garin said.
Garin said she only had access to the President when she became the acting DOH secretary.
“He mentioned I was there reporting. I had no direct access to the President when I was undersecretary. I had only access to the President, I think almost a month when I became acting secretary,” Garin said.
“Sino po ang nagdala sa akin kay Pangulong Aquino (who brought me to President Aquino)? It was Secretary Ona,” she pointed out.
“I was being pictured as somebody very close to Malacañang who would do everything even if it’s wrong,” she lamented.
The DOH, now under Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, halted the anti-dengue program immediately after Sanofi disclosed in November, 2017 that children who had not had dengue before but were given Dengvaxia shots could have worse symptoms of the mosquito-borne disease.